Abraham Block: The ultimate hustler

Thursday March 6 2014


Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits,” Thomas A. Edison, Inventor (1847 -1931). So begins chapter 75 of Abraham’s People, written by Jane Clare Barsby. And everything did indeed come to Abraham Lazarus Block.

Born in 1883 in Lithuania, Abraham was known by his compatriots as ALB or “The Prophet” for his seeming ability to see the financial future. He was the only son of Samuel and Ettel Block, and had three sisters, Annie who was born in 1879, Lily and Freda, born in 1888 and 1891 respectively.

The book is loosely based on the story of Abraham’s life and draws on his memoirs, those of his sister Lily, and his grand-daughter Ora Hirshfeld. It tells the story of the Lithuanian-Jewish Block family from its time of persecution under the Russian Tsars to its position as the founder of East Africa’s famous hotel chain, Block Hotels.

Abraham was conscripted into the army of the Tsar of Russia at the age of 12, and ran away to Leeds in England, where his aunt Fanny and her husband Rabbi Sinson had escaped to earlier. Abraham had to get work immediately and his uncle found him a job in a sweatshop; and a hustler was born.

His first job was as a delivery boy, and soon he knew the maze of the streets. To get ahead, he needed to make his deliveries faster and so he “collected the staves of the broken crates that lay around outside the factory, the yards and the sweatshops. He nailed them together to make a cart, and his Aunt Sinson acquitted the chassis of an old perambulator for him. Abraham Block was in business.

Barsby writes as if she was present at the time. A freelance writer, she was commissioned by Abraham’s grandson Jeremy Block to write the book.

She writes easy to read, short chapters, 97 in all. Interspersed with photographs in black and white, the book gives the reader a literal picture of the characters and their experiences. Although it costs more to place pictures all along the pages than just in the middle of the book, the visualisation creates kinship with the family; one feels like they know them personally.

While working for Burton, Abraham fell in love with Rosie Daniels in 1898. He knew that he needed to make money in order to marry Rosie. So he decided to seek his fortune in Africa.

In 1892, Samuel Block had fled persecution in Lithuania and found his way to South Africa.

“As he approached his 17th birthday, Abraham wrote to his father,” Barsby writes. In 1900, Samuel replied to Abraham’s letter saying that he looked forward to his son’s arrival; Abraham soon boarded a freighter bound for Cape Town and eventually reunited with his father.

In South Africa, Abraham found a job shearing sheep, and, true to his business-minded nature, considered “how he might carry the fleeces from the sheds to the spinners; and from the spinners to the port.”

While in Cape Town, Abraham writes in his memoirs; “1903 heralded a great change in my life. In March of that year I attended a lecture in Cape Town given by Joseph Chamberlain, the British Colonial Secretary. He spoke of a new discovery in the British Empire; a colony where a treaty had been signed with many of the elders that allowed for European settlement in a new land called British East Africa.”

After a journey of 21 days by ship, Abraham landed in Mombasa.

His time in Kenya spans the two World Wars (he almost died in the First, and his two sons fought in the Second), the Mau Mau uprising and eventual Independence of Kenya.

When he first arrived, Abraham bought land and tried his hand at farming but it was hard going, and after a few years, he was ready to give up and return to South Africa. But Lord Delamare, one of the first white settlers, convinced him to stay and offered help.

Resourceful and determined, likeable and capable, Abraham spent the next 60 years trading in everything from pigs to carpets, and from mattresses to land. He returned to Leeds to seek Rosie’s hand in marriage, but she refused and he married his friend’s sister, Sarah Tulipman, rather more by default than intention.

An iconic figure, Abraham was often to be found standing on the steps of his many and varied business concerns. Barsby’s book cover photograph captures this image perfectly.

At the book launch on February 26, held at the first hotel Abraham bought in 1927, the Norfolk (now run by Fairmont Hotels and resorts) Barsby, open and friendly, said she was “scared and humbled” and seemed understandably overwhelmed by the large turnout.

Written in Elementaita, 120km northwest of Nairobi, Barsby said she spent six months putting the information together, six months writing the book and six months fine tuning and editing it.

To provide a historical biographical novel, Barsby took some liberties with dates and characters, and indicates this in the footnotes. She injects emotion into her characters — humour, joy, disappointment; when Abraham falls sick during the war and is on the brink of death the reader can almost feel his pain.

However, there are hiccups in the story; typographical errors, quotation marks that open but don’t close, and some quotes that close without opening. The errors seem to increase as the book progresses, leaving one feeling the editor’s energy flagging by Chapter 97.

Abraham and Sarah were succeeded by their own “people”: Rita, Jack, Tubby and Ruth Block, who went on to consolidate the Block empire.